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The Names We Call Ourselves (2011)

The Names We Call Ourselves (2011)

©2011 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (2011, 30 May). The names we call ourselves. TG Forum.


TG Forum Version



In 1982 anthropologist Anne Bolin was doing field work with male-to-female transsexuals for her doctoral dissertation. Her subjects were selected from an open transgender support group in Colorado that she didn’t identify by name but was certainly the Gender Identity Center of Colorado. Of the self-identities of the members of the support group, she wrote in her chapter in my 1998 text Current Concepts in Transgender Identity:

At the time of my field work there were only three gender options (social identities) available for physical males who cross-dressed among the group I worked with: the surgically oriented male-to-female transsexual, the male transvestite, and the gay female impersonator/crossdresser.

—p. 66

To be clear, these weren’t Bolin’s categories— they comprised the full spectrum of gender identity options available to members of early 1980s support groups. Members were required, sometimes covertly, but usually overtly, to choose one of the three options, and those who crossed categories or dressed or behaved in ways that didn’t “fit” their own category were looked at askance and sometimes chastised.

Bolin contrasted this sparse palette of identities to the newly-emerged and rich variety of blended identities she found in the transgender community in the early and mid 1990s. In 1993, while sitting beside me on panel at Southern Comfort, she described the wide variety of identities available to attendees and called it, marvelously, “A Splendor of Gender.” I was taking a sip of water and nearly choked on it. It was that great.

This new palette of identities was directly attributable to discussions within the fledgling transgender community. Practically every community leader participated as new terminology and new concepts were floated and evaluated. A turning point occurred with Holly Boswell’s essay The Transgender Alternative, which was published in IFGE’s Transgender Tapestry and my own Chrysalis Quarterly Journal. Suddenly it was okay to transition gender roles without at least professing to want surgery, or to live openly after transition, or for crossdressers to talk about their transsexual inclinations.

In Vancouver, at the 1997 conference of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, Jamison Green and I gave a talk in which we discussed pejorative descriptive terminology in the medical and psychological literature. After we concluded, respected psychiatrist Ira Pauly asked, “What DO you want us to call you?”

Neither Jamison nor I were prepared to answer for the community, but by the time of the next U.S. HBIGDA symposium we would have more to say on behalf of transgendered people in the US and Canada. Jamison, Jason Cromwell, and I devised and distributed a questionnaire in which we asked transgendered people to rate various descriptive terms used by helping professionals. Moreover, we asked our respondents which terms they preferred, giving them a choice and an option to write in terms we didn’t list. We received 137 completed questionnaires, of which 134 were complete and usable.

In 2001, we presented our results at the HBIGDA meeting in Galveston. Neither Jason nor I were in attendance, so Jamison read the paper, which was titled The Language of Gender Variance. He spoke during a plenary session, so every conference attendee was present.

You can see that respondents gave an amazing variety of responses to question No. 4, “What word or words would you use to describe yourself?” This finding is similar to Denny and Roberts’ 1995) survey of attitudes about the HBIGDA Standards of Care; their 339 respondents used more than 40 self-identity terms. We take this variety of terms as indicative of the complexity of language and conclude there is little chance we will soon be able to answer the question “What DO you want to be called?”

—from transcript of our 2001 HBIGDA presentation

Jamison told the assembled physicians, psychologists, social workers, and other professionals that while we weren’t yet prepared to say what transgendered people wanted to be called, we could with some authority say what they DIDN’T want to be called. Our data showed a clear dislike of the terms male transsexual and female transsexual to refer to, respectively, male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals and the use of quotation marks around pronouns and body parts. Jamison then showed a slide developed from focus groups we had held at the Southern Comfort and Fantasia Fair conferences, in which we asked participants which terms they would like to hear from medical and psychological professionals:

  • Treat us with respect
  • Acknowledge and respect our differences, individual choices, and life paths
  • Treat us as individuals, with concession to our differences
  • Do not make decisions about our lives based upon our biology or natal genitalia
  • Do not use descriptive terms based on our biology or natal genitalia
  • In the absence of evidence of dysfunction, do not use language that imbues us with pathology, and in particular psychopathology
  • Make a distinction between external and internal sources of impairment (acknowledge the role a dysfunctional society plays in traumatizing us rather than presuming our transgender natures are themselves pathological).

The impact of our presentation was significant and immediate. Jamison had a number of private conversations with other professionals afterward and noted that a number of slides in following sessions had descriptive terms that had been scratched out and replaced with less pejorative terms. The talk had been, he told me in our phone conversation afterward, a conference changer.

Last fall I chanced upon the website Gender Fork, a community-based website of transgender self-expression maintained by a network of volunteers. It’s filled with photos of androgynous and gender-blending young people and verbiage like this:

“Some days I will show some cleavage, wear lip gloss and rock a 2-day beard.”

“I don’t want a boyfriend of a girlfriend. I want a bothfriend.”

“I want to pass less. Sometimes passing makes me sad. I love the idea of having my gender constantly called into question.”

The variety of self-identities is just as astonishing:

“… a female “tomboy lite.”

“… a gothic Homofexible lesbian. Crossdresser or femme. A lipstick dyke. A PRINCE.”

“The phrase that I came to and rings true for me is “femme bear.” I want to be a big, strong, muscle-y, hairy person, and wear heels and flower patterns. I like my beard, but I hate that I felt that I had to give up wearing lipstick completely.”

“I don’t identify as male or female but as an artist.”

Clearly, our 2001 paper was out of date!

Not long after, while talking with Jamison about a chapter we’re co-writing for the forthcoming book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, I suggested we revise and redistribute our questionnaire. Although he was nothing if not overcommitted (he was preparing to defend his dissertation) he agreed, and Jason Cromwell agreed to again evaluate the data. We will be presenting our preliminary results in September at the conference of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (the former HBIGDA) here in Atlanta.

Our revised questionnaire has been online at SurveyMonkey for barely a month, and already there are more than 1500 completed questionnaires (compare this to 137 from our first questionnaire, which we not only posted online but mailed to support groups around the US and Canada!) I invite you, dear reader, to go here and fill it out.


NOTE: The Survey is Closed